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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

One to Grow On / Real Listening as Real Teaching

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There was a period in my public school teaching years when I spent a good bit of time reading about what it meant to create a "thinking classroom." I learned useful things about the hallmarks of various types of thinking, strategies to support thinking, and so on. But I gleaned more valuable insights when—to gather information for my dissertation—I spent two months watching a really fine 8th grade English teacher interact with her students.
From my first day as an observer in Dianne's class, I was struck by the thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas her students generated. I realized quickly that this soft-spoken teacher engaged her students' minds in ways that were powerful for them. Because what Dianne did was subtle, it took me a while to figure out her "power source." It was simple and profound.
She entered her classroom every day—and every class period—with clear and unequivocal respect for her students. Dianne believed that each student brought to the classroom wisdom born of experience and that teaching provided her the opportunity to help these students discover their own wisdom and that of their classmates.

Powerful Questioning, Exquisite Listening

Beyond that powerful conception of the nature of teaching, Dianne exercised two other strengths characteristic of thought leaders. First, she was a probing questioner. She knew that every idea a student shared was the corridor to another and richer idea—and she regularly led her students through those corridors, never stopping at the threshold of an idea. Second, she was an exquisite listener. Any student who was speaking to Dianne was, for that time, the center of the universe for her—and that student felt valued in a rare, affirming, and nurturing way.
Quickly, her students became her understudies. They began to talk with one another the way she talked with them—with intensity, respect, and great expectations. Most days, discussions in Dianne's classes had the feel of holy ground.
I recall a day when I looked up from taking notes in the back of the room during a class discussion of a short story. The conversation was moving along briskly, idea leading to idea, when I realized Dianne was no longer in the front of the class. Surprised that I hadn't seen her leave the room, I was even more surprised to realize that the students were continuing the discussion in her absence with no lessening of interest or intensity. My surprise peaked, however, when I saw Dianne seated in the middle of the classroom among her students—a learner among learners.

Understanding What Really Matters

Although she was nearing middle age, Dianne was a new teacher. She'd elected not to begin her career until her three children were teenagers. So despite her maturity, she was a novice educator. From time to time, as is the case with all novice teachers, she'd teach a term incorrectly or approach a segment of learning awkwardly. For example, I watched Dianne teach the literary concept of point of view as a synonym for the more generally used term viewpoint. I had the sense that at least some of her students caught these occasional errors, but no one ever raised an issue. The students simply continued to follow her and one another on a journey of discovery.
As is often the case, a student provided me with the insight I needed to understand more fully what made Dianne such an effective teacher, catalyst for discussion, and thought mentor. I interviewed a good number of her students—many of them several times. One day as I interviewed a boy who seemed particularly attuned to details and undercurrents in the classroom, I asked him gently about Dianne's occasional content missteps.
"Last week, you and your classmates were talking about point of view in literature," I said. "I wasn't quite clear on how this term was being used in the class. I'm wondering if you could share your understanding with me."
Without hesitation, he replied, "Well, I think Mrs. W. used the term in a slightly different way than it's used in the book" and proceeded to explain the distinctions.
"So," I asked, "is it a problem for you that you had to figure out that your teacher was defining this term in a different way than how the book defines it?"
"Oh, no," he responded with a firm shake of his head, "it isn't a problem at all!"
Perhaps following in Dianne's mode, I probed deeper: "Can you help me understand that? You and your classmates clearly value this class and its teacher, despite the fact that occasionally some of the information she presents is a bit inaccurate."
With eyes that matched the intensity of his teacher's, and with conviction, the student responded, "Ms. Tomlinson, for seven years, teachers have told us what to think. This teacher has shown us how to think. That's what matters here!"
The experience was, and remains for me, a benchmark moment in understanding great teaching.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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